RUSSIA'S brewing political crisis is likely to provide an early foreign policy test for United States President-elect Clinton. Political experts here say the new administration's handling of the situation could greatly influence Russian market reforms.
The Supreme Soviet, Russia's standing parliament, turned up the heat on President Boris Yeltsin Wednesday, passing a law placing the government under legislative control. Mr. Yeltsin had enjoyed the right to appoint Cabinet ministers without parliamentary approval. The Supreme Soviet and the president have clashed repeatedly over the pace of market reforms, and Yeltsin's aides have called the law unconstitutional.
Russia's crisis comes as Mr. Clinton looks ready to focus on remedying economic woes in the US. But the US must not become too inwardly focused, Russian experts warn. If Clinton fails to act promptly on developments in Russia, the consequences could be harsh for the US, they add.
"Russia has never been more vulnerable to outside pressure," says Andrei Kortunov, a researcher at Moscow's USA-Canada Institute. "The new Clinton administration must clearly show where it stands on [Russian] reforms." he adds. "When you have such a fragile political balance as now in Russia, even marginal influence can tip the scale."
At the same time, Mr. Kortunov says, the new administration must be patient with Yeltsin, who could resort to unorthodox methods to repulse conservative attacks. This week during a visit to Britain, Yeltsin hinted he may use administrative means, or even declare presidential rule, to defend reforms. (Yeltsin in Hungary, Page 6.)
Robert Strauss, former US ambassador to Russia, said at his farewell news conference that the US should trust Yeltsin to make the right decisions for Russia's move to a market. "I have great respect for President Yeltsin's political instincts.... He's as good as I've ever seen," said Mr. Strauss, a former Democratic Party chairman and a Washington political insider.
Some in Moscow, however, are concerned that a new administration could misinterpret, and thus overreact to Yeltsin's political maneuvers. "The idea of democracy is losing popularity in Russia, and there is growing sympathy for authoritarianism," Kortunov says. "That doesn't fit well into the philosophy of the Democratic Party."
Many Russians are apprehensive about the policies of the incoming Democratic administration. For most here, the only model for a Democratic president is Jimmy Carter, who was perceived by Moscow as being unpredictable and overly concerned about human rights.
Viktor Sheinis, a leading liberal in the parliament, says Clinton should stress human rights, but adds that he must be even-handed. Many officials in Moscow, Mr. Sheinis says, are annoyed by the lack of a US statement on perceived discrimination against ethnic Russians in Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. During recent elections in Estonia, for example, most Russians living in the republic were ineligible to vote.
"The aggressive opposition [to reform] is anti-American, and [anti-reformers] exploit the stereotypes that were hammered into our minds during the cold war - that America is the enemy," Sheinis says. "If Clinton were to make a statement on human rights in the Baltics ... it would rob the opposition of one of their main weapons."
ARMS control is another area in which the Americans must tread delicately, so as not to complicate matters for reformers in Russia, experts say.
Nuclear weapons cuts have slowed since the breakup of the Soviet Union last year. Just last week, the parliament ratified the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) treaty, signed in July 1991. But the legislature made its ratification conditional on Russia's ability to work out agreements with the other three ex-Soviet nuclear states - Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine.
Russia is solely responsible for fulfilling the former Soviet Union's obligations under START, but Kazakhstan and Ukraine have expressed reservations about adhering to the plan. Both Russia and the United States must reduce the number of nuclear warheads - 6,000 each within seven years, according to the treaty.
It is unlikely Russia will act anytime soon on further nuclear arms cuts agreed to earlier this year by President Bush and Yeltsin. In that deal, Moscow and Washington agreed to reduce nuclear warheads to 3,000 each by the year 2003.
"The United States must show understanding if Russia is slow to implement the treaties," says Kortunov, the USA-Cananda Institute expert. "It's not that Russia is trying to cheat. There are technical problems and domestic political considerations that the United States must take into account."
If Clinton pressed too hard on cutting nuclear weapons, Kortunov says, it could play into the hands of conservatives. It would be better for Clinton to focus on nonproliferation and measures to combat nuclear terrorism, he adds. "Many think Yeltsin yielded too much, so it is important for Russia not to think it is making cuts under pressure."